Kerbal Space Program

Kerbal Space Program

Kerbal Space Program is a deep, funny, and detailed physics sim that never takes itself too seriously.

Kerbal Space Program is a deep, funny, and detailed physics sim that never takes itself too seriously.

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Review game Kerbal Space Program, Kerbal Space Program is a deep, funny, and detailed physics sim that never takes itself too seriously.

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The first time I set foot on Mun, the nearest moon to planet Kerbin, I can still clearly recall. It was the result of numerous setbacks and instances in which my ability, preparation, or design fell short. Too many rockets would be too big, too heavy, too ineffective, or too explosive. I could botch my landing and spill my tiny green astronauts across the moon’s angular craters, or I could fail to escape Kerbin’s atmosphere completely, sending them spinning into a muddy grave. Once, while I was 5,000 meters above Mun’s surface, I ran out of fuel and was unable to slow down my descent, so I watched helplessly as they burst upon impact. It broke my heart.

Eventually, the solution emerged from the innumerable setbacks and sacrifices. The rocket that succeeded was ugly and dilapidated. It was the product of a hundred awkward fixes for unanticipated issues. However, it remained stable during the launch procedure, remaining straight during the first 10,000 meters of ascent, the seamless change to a suborbital arc, and the regulated burn at the 70,000 meters of apoapsis, moving first into orbit and then out of Kerbin’s sphere of influence and into contact with Mun. I moved my Kerbal to a lander that was bolted to the launch payload before descending—an overly complicated fix for my previous fuel shortage. I descended and made a single, tiny step onto the surface.

I share this tale because it’s still among my best gaming accomplishments. It was also a legitimate accomplishment. Not a congratulations trophy meant to show small steps forward, but the accomplishment of a difficult, self-made objective. For me, the whole experience—from failure to revision to hope to exhilarating completion—solidified why Kerbal Space Program stands out among the best PC games. Presently reviewing the game two years later, it feels strange to be doing so.

The goal of the Kerbal Space Program is to construct and launch rockets into space. Since it was first made available in Alpha back in 2011, it’s likely that you were already aware of that. Its potential was clear from the beginning because of the strength of the fundamental sandbox concept. Subsequent patches have strengthened the game’s ability to fulfill its initial promise of full-space program management and execution with additional tools and features. One of the few early access games that I was confident enough to recommend without reservation was Kerbal Space Program. That was amazing back then, and even more so now that it’s been updated to version 1.0 for a formal release.

The most recent update adds a few noteworthy features, but none of them significantly alter the gameplay. The main pillars of KSP have been in existence for some time. Over time, updates have shaped the game into what it is today, with the goal of expanding upon these pillars. Version 1.0 is, in a sense, the finishing touch, the decorative entablature. It updates the aerodynamics, heat simulation, and flight model to better reflect the laws of physics in the real world. Since this simulation is essential to KSP’s allure, it makes sense that its completion and appropriate release coincide.

The remaining additions are pleasant extras. More ship components, female astronauts on Kerbal missions, updated graphical effects, and a new ‘Engineer Report’ panel that provides advice on glaring mistakes in a ship’s construction are all included. The tutorial has also been expanded, and while it won’t likely lessen the overwhelming nature of KSP’s initial hours, it does a better job of teaching the fundamentals and equips you with the foundational knowledge required to draw lessons from your own mistakes and experiences. All things considered, it’s a good update, but it doesn’t really explain what makes the game so fantastic. You must delve into the core of the Kerbal Space Program in order to do that.

The essence of KSP is best distilled in sandbox mode. You can spend as much money as you want and have complete access to all of the game’s ship components. Upon entering the vehicle assembly building, a list of components is presented to you. What are your goals? Well, you should probably go to space. How? Rockets, huh? And an engine, too. Although there are many parts in many categories, you can construct a working rocket with just a few fundamental components. With the Vehicle Assembly Building, you have an easy way to add parts until they start to approximate the shape of a ship. It’s a WYSIWYG modular editor. When you click on a component, it becomes visible as a spectral outline that moves with your mouse. It will lock into place if you move it in the direction of a previously placed part. For a more intricate design, you can align multiple pieces of the same piece symmetrically around the current build, or you can rotate and offset parts.

Everything finished? All right, your construction will move to the launchpad when you click the launch button. You are now the pilot instead of the engineer. Though it will tremble and sway, your creation should remain upright if you follow the rules of basic symmetry. Carefully, you hit the spacebar to start the launch sequence. Whichever of a never-ending array of branching options you wind up falling into will depend on what happens next. Did you unintentionally turn on your parachute and engine at the same moment, sending your ship spinning uncontrollably a few feet above the ground? Did you install an engine that had insufficient thrust, preventing your ship from ascending more than a few inches? Were you forced to watch helplessly as your astronaut suffered the inevitable effects of gravity because you forgot to even fit a parachute? Have you been able to escape the atmosphere?

Success or failure, what transpires during the launch provides you with fresh insight into how to move forward. In an effort to reach stable orbit, repair the launch staging, add a larger engine, a parachute, and more fuel tanks. You have to reassess and adjust after every launch and subsequent error. In order to maximize fuel efficiency, you will learn how to smooth the airflow with fairings, reduce roll with stability assists, and pilot more skillfully through the first 70,000 meters. Gradually, as you discover elements essential to resolving any issue you encounter, that bewildering inventory of parts begins to make sense.

No matter what you decide to do, KSP is an extremely challenging game. It is difficult right away and offers little support as you navigate what can at times be quite difficult concepts. But its challenge is very specific. Bullshit to the difficulty: no set pieces that bend the rules or special cases. Since KSP’s challenge is based on actual scientific principles, it’s just a bar that it expects you to meet. It’s not haughty, spiteful, or malevolent. It is what it is. If you build a rocket that is top-heavy and has more fuel tanks than stability, it will topple over and blow up. You’re just left to learn about this failure—you’re not held accountable for it. The game is telling us that this is physics. What expectations did you have? Its reasoning is reasonable and grounded, which makes it logical and constant.

It is also intuitive. Once more, consider the sandbox game Minecraft, which originated from a similar model of premium alpha access. That game conceals its crafting options beneath absurd design layers that would be impossible to decipher without a wiki. Contrarily, physics is an actual, observable science. If you are not familiar with the hard science involved or don’t understand the formulas, you can usually tell with your gut why something isn’t working. KSP has many advantages, one of which is that it allows science to drive design. Because of the forces it simulates and the tools you are given to overcome them, progression and difficulty all make sense. It’s a struggle between drag and aerodynamics, thrust and gravity. Game design benefits greatly from science, and KSP capitalizes on this fact.

Kerbal Space Program could easily come across as a cold, lifeless simulation—akin to a game made for a group of physics professors with bushy eyebrows and tweed jackets. The presentation and the character of the Kerbals themselves are the main reasons why it isn’t. They are awkward, foolish tinkerers who are praised in-game for their audacity and foolishness. The Kerbals are the ones who simplify physics for the general public. They are what turn KSP from being about equations and formulas to being about shoddy engineering. It makes sense that my moonlander was clumsily bolted to the top of a barely functioning ship in the context of Kerbal mission control. The fact that a Kerbal is stuck in orbit and that he’s still got a big, shit-eating smile on his face years later makes sense.

Note that we have already completed that. We strapped people into enormous combustible machines and shot them out of our planet on the strength of science, desire, and, yes, a nearly apocalyptic competition between two superpowers. When we did that, it was incredible. For many reasons, Kerbal Space Program is an excellent game. Its excellent features include a strong simulation, satisfying design tools, a wide range of options and variety, and an amazing community that has produced hundreds of mods, guides, and videos to help you accomplish anything you set your mind to. It’s brilliant, above all, because it reflects one of the greatest feats in human history, but only when you can truly appreciate the skill, courage, and dedication that went into it. It’s an incredible and uncommon game that comes highly recommended.

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